Context Matters - Sometimes you have to look at the big picture

The complainant, Carman Miller objected to a reference that it’s hard to spot Canadian flags in Quebec. He thought it was inaccurate and amounted to Quebec bashing. It was a passing reference in an article about the results of a survey of Muslims in Canada. In its context, I did not see it as negative or a violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You were “shocked to read the gratuitous, misleading [and false] statement” in Neil Macdonald’s column reacting to the publication of a survey of Muslim Canadians in Canada. The purpose of the survey was to probe the relationships with Muslim Canadians and the rest of the Canadian population. The sentence you objected to did not refer to Muslims, but rather Quebec. The column, entitled Survey of Muslim Canadians, rebuts lazy generalizations with hard data focused on the results of the survey, which indicated Muslims identify strongly as Canadians, as well as with their religion. In the course of the piece, Mr. Macdonald made reference to Quebec by saying: “Try to find a Canadian flag in Quebec, for example.” You characterized that statement as “Quebec bashing”:

One would have to be wilfully blind [or worse] to fail to find a Canadian flag in Quebec. Nor are his biased comments on Quebec more founded. He may not like Quebec but he ought to ground his criticism on fact rather than fictions.

You thought this statement “effectively creates or is designed to create” a negative image of the province. You said this causes “needless tension” and contravenes the mandate of the CBC. You thought that an apology was in order.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the Senior producer of the Politics section of cbcnews.ca responded to your complaint. He pointed out that this was one line in an essay and was “almost an aside in this article.” He pointed out that the column was an analysis of the results of a survey of Muslims in Canada prepared by the Environics Institute. He explained that if taken in context of the entire column and its thesis, that the Muslim community was like many others in Canada, including Quebecois. He reminded you that Mr. Macdonald characterized Canada as a country which is the “multi-culti community of communities.” He added that the paragraph was not framed as criticism of Quebec, and that this is clear from the context of the piece. He mentioned that the reference to flags was a “rhetorical device” and added that he did not say there are no Canadian flags in Quebec. He used the phrase to make a point of Quebecois’ distinct sense of themselves. He told you he did not draw the conclusion that it was in any way a negative observation:

I note as well that this article was an analysis piece, clearly marked as such, and was intended to offer some thought-provoking context to the facts of the Environics survey of Muslims in Canada. Mr. Macdonald’s writing may be provocative at times, but that is mainly with the goal of being interesting and in bringing about a different way of looking at the cold numbers of the survey. Mr. Macdonald succeeds in doing that, I believe. And looking at the full context, I don’t believe an apology is needed or warranted.

REVIEW

As Mr. Carter pointed out, the article in question was a column, not field reporting. You are correct in your observation that even opinion must be based in fact. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices backs you up. It is in the context of interviews but the policy manual states there is a requirement to ... “ensure that the opinion is grounded in facts bearing on a matter of public interest.” Policy also states:

We provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest.

While you dismiss the distinction, the context and type of content does make a difference. Had Mr. Macdonald been doing some reporting from Quebec, and reported there were no Canadian flags in the province, that would be an issue. He did not actually say that --not even in the column. And the context in which it was said is relevant. This one sentence stood out for you and you took it to be a literal statement and one that was negative. In reviewing the column, I can’t agree. Whether the rhetorical flourish was necessary, the point being made is far from a negative one: that there are more commonalities than differences between communities in this country. Mr. Macdonald’s observation is that the maple leaf is not as predominant in Quebec as it might be in other provinces because many of its citizens have a sense of themselves as Quebecois first. It is the most important part of their identity. That is an observation, not a value judgment. In November of 2007 the Parliament of Canada passed a motion introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It read (in both official languages):

"That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

"Que cette Chambre reconnaisse que les Québécoises et les Québécois forment une nation au sein d'un Canada uni."

The observation Mr. Macdonald is making about Quebec is hardly a radical one. You took a particular meaning in the way he phrased it. Looking at the flow of the article, I do not take that meaning. He started it off by mentioning how important this research is to overcome stereotypes of Muslims, that while their religion makes up a strong part of their identity, being Canadian is also a very strong part of identity for them. He went on to make the point that this is quintessentially Canadian, and a characteristic shared with others, including Quebecois:

Canadian Muslims also, according to the Environics Institute survey, tend to identify strongly as Canadians but slightly more strongly as Muslims.

That might be seized upon by some as a reason to question their patriotism.

But really, it's a pretty Canadian answer. This country is, after all, the multi-culti community of communities.

I know Jews who think of themselves primarily as Jewish and religious Christians whose first allegiance is to Jesus Christ.

In fact, the survey found, on Page 15, that "non-Muslim Canadians affiliated with a religion … are also less apt to place strong importance on their Canadian identity."

Try to find a Canadian flag in Quebec, for example. That province's eight million residents are officially encouraged to think of themselves as Qué​bé​cois first and foremost, and really, whether they admit it or not, the subtext of Qué​bé​cois is still white and Catholic. (Remember, a crucifix hangs on the wall of the Quebec legislature).

I'm utterly non-religious, and not a Quebecker, and even I primarily identify as something other than Canadian. "Journalist," maybe, or "Western."

Canada is a good place to be born and to live, certainly, but Canadians are simply not as wired to civic nationalism as, say, Americans.

I do not think this reads as “Quebec bashing” and there was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman